Forget the periodic table; there's nothing like making slime to interest children in chemistry. MHC chemists use fun experiments in their outreach program to hook kids, such as this Holyoke fifth grader, on science.
eeeeeuuuuuuuooooo; it's gross!" "Ooooooooooh... Let me feel the slime." This is not a Ghostbusters reenactment; it's the sound of fifth graders learning chemistry. (The kids think they're just playing.) MHC professor Ed Fitzgerald, who coordinates the College's chemistry outreach program, captures kids' interest by teaching them to make "slime," then explaining the chemistry behind it. By combining sodium borate and polyvinyl alcohol and watching the mixture become thick slick slime, the kids have conducted a chemistry experiment creating cross-linked polymers, Fitzgerald explains. "The point is to have the kids realize that science can be done by anyone, not just by some old frizzy-haired white men."
In his seven years of giving such workshops to area schoolchildren, Fitzgerald has found that many teachers are even more intimidated by science than their students. When one teacher declared she hated chemistry, he groaned inwardly. "But at the end of the day, she told me, 'I never knew chemistry could be so much fun.'" That teacher later had her students conducting their own experiments. "I converted her," Fitzgerald recalls jubilantly.
In addition to running workshops, MHC professors and chemistry majors have developed eight "chem kits" that they loan to schools. Each contains all the scientific and safety equipment, instructions, and chemicals a class needs to examine a topic such as acid/base composition, chromatography, or the structure of crystals. The experiments use not only typical scientific equipment - pH meters, balances, microscopes, and so on - but also M&M candies, fountain-pen ink, fabric scraps, rocks, chewing gum, and other kid-friendly objects. The message: chemistry is everywhere, and it can be fun.
About 3,000 students at schools throughout the Northeast use MHC's kits each year. New kits examining the chemistry of baking, soap composition, and oxidation reduction (rusting) were developed this summer by MHC juniors Erica Dorman and Laura McKinstry and will soon be available to elementary and secondary schools.
It's still too early to know if the children's fascination with slime will develop into more intense scientific study, but Fitzgerald has seen attitudes toward science change profoundly in the course of one workshop. "Some of the girls from one Holyoke school looked at me as if to say, 'Do I have to be here?' But they left [after making slime] saying, 'I'm going to be a scientist; this is fun!'" Isn't it amazing what a little slime, in the right hands, can do?
WINTER 1997-98 * VOLUME 2 * NUMBER 3
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